My Favorite Film of 2013

*This blog was originally written in February of 2014. It has been resurrected here for historical purposes (I may periodically write about my favorite films of other years of my life later). And also because Frozen is freakin’ awesome.*

Frozen

Frozen is my favorite film of 2013. I haven’t been so enamored with an animated film since Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo back in 2009, and I haven’t felt so strongly for an American animated feature since The Incredibles back in 2004. I will even go so far as to say Frozen has become my favorite Disney film. But what is it that makes it so special?

The marketing campaign that Disney created for Frozen may have been the most misleading I have ever seen. The film’s first teaser – which focused on a snowman and a reindeer fighting over a carrot – was fun, but didn’t exactly tell you Disney was aiming to create an animated masterpiece. The later trailers and commercials were even less forgivable. The advertisements contained music that was too sugary, and seemed like they were trying too hard to make the film look “cool” for today’s youngsters. Once again, they featured that snowman so prominently it would be easy for someone to think the movie was about little more than the wisecracks and slapstick of this sidekick. You might not have even noticed the two sisters who would end up being the stars of the show.

Well, this was either the worst marketing I’ve ever seen, or the very best, depending on how you look at things. I went into Frozen with very little expectations. But after my attention was grabbed by the delightful short film Get a Horse (it in itself an absolute delight), I was surprised to realize that, well, I was surprised. From its opening moments to its heartfelt finale, Frozen was one of the most joyous movie experiences I’ve ever had.

Disney films, as much as I love them, are often predictable. It’s something most Disney fans don’t want to admit, but Disney characters are often more archetypal than deep. The songs are often meant to regain our attention after slower moments, and the stories, while undeniably charming, go in the exact directions you would expect.

How delighted I was then, that Frozen’s characters are not dictated by the plot, but the story is instead centered around the emotional depths and relationships of its characters. It’s soundtrack is the very best in the studio’s history, and the non-musical moments are equally entertaining. Oh, and that snowman, who looked so forced on the advertisements, ended up being as endearing as any character that has ever come out of the Disney brand.

In short, no Disney film has surprised and delighted me in the way Frozen has.

Frozen

At the heart of the story are Anna and Elsa, the two strongest and most likable female leads Disney has ever created. This is a film that is entirely focused on, and driven by, these two sisters. There’s still adventure, action, comedy and romance, just as there is in most Disney films. But at the heart of it all is the relationship between Anna and Elsa, two sisters who love each other, but have forgotten what it means to love.

Elsa possesses magical powers that are as dangerous as they are beautiful. In order to protect the people she loves from herself, she locks herself away in her room, shutting out the rest of the world. Fear effectively takes control of Elsa’s life, and Anna’s life becomes equally as lonely because of it.

The opening moments of the film, which explains this emotional setup through the song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” has been compared to the opening moments from Pixar’s Up, famous for bringing audiences to tears. But I’ll go ahead and say I think Frozen’s opening is the more effective of the two. Up, great as it is, often lost that tone during the course of the adventure, but Frozen is more consistent. Even with all the humor and charm, the emotion that begins at the start of the film permeates at the core of the story throughout.

In these moments we see the changes that occur within Anna and Elsa. As children they are as close as can be, but as they get older we see how fear, loneliness and loss make them grow distant. Anna knocks on her sister’s door daily, at first asking Elsa if she wants to play and build a snowman. Eventually her enthusiasm disappears, and she simply pleads with her sister to let her in (literally she means for her sister to open her door, thematically she means for Elsa to open her heart to her again).

Despite the melancholy, Frozen is a joyous film. The emotional conflict between the sisters is always present, but Frozen isn’t about breaking hearts. As the leader of a group of trolls makes quite apparent in the latter half of the movie, this is a film all about warming our hearts. It’s as funny and well-written as it is heartfelt.Elsa

It’s all too easy to call Frozen a beautiful film. Its settings and visual effects are as eye-popping as any CG animated film yet made. The snowy landscapes and magical happenings are nothing short of stunning. But the film’s most beautiful aspect is the honesty of its story.

In this day and age, there’s a sense of sarcasm, and often cynicism, that accompanies animated movies. The CG animated pictures we see coming from most studios relish on wisecracking characters and smarmy references. Pixar has always stood out, sure, but they’re surrounded and outnumbered by far more obnoxious and insipid pictures.

But with Frozen, Disney has created a story, a fairy tale, as honest and sincere as any they’ve made. It’s modernized in the right ways (again, you won’t find female leads as strong and independent as Frozen’s in the older Disney films), but it never feels contrived to grab today’s audiences. It feels timeless, as all the best animated features do.

Disney has been getting back into their A-game for a few years now, with the likes of The Princess and the Frog, Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph being among the best animated films released in their respective years. But while all these films were great in their own right, they could, at times, feel a little forced, or not quite fulfill their concepts. But Frozen feels complete. Everything comes together fluidly and seamlessly. And in a rarity for Disney, Frozen takes many unexpected turns. When things start looking like they’ll fall right where we expect them to, Frozen finds ways to turn things on their heads.

Frozen

As previously stated, the characters here are deeper and more complex than what we usually see from Disney. Not just Elsa and Anna, but the supporting cast as well. Kristoff isn’t exactly a prince charming, and like Anna, is a lonely individual who’s resorted to providing the voice of his own pet reindeer just to have someone to talk to. Frozen’s equivalent of prince charming, Prince Hans, also reveals to be a more layered character than his demeanor at first suggest. Even Olaf, that snowman we were introduced to before all the other characters, could have easily become an overbearing source for comic relief. Instead he’s a genuinely charming character who, in a rarity for Disney sidekicks, feels necessary to the story, as he serves an emotional connection between the main characters.

FrozenPerhaps the moment that best showcases what makes Frozen so thematically different from other Disney works is the musical number “Let it Go.” An obvious choice, sure. It’s only the film’s signature song, but it’s earned it’s reputation for a reason. For all intents and purposes, Elsa is Frozen’s primary antagonist. She’s certainly no villain, but her conflicts become everyone else’s conflicts. Her dilemmas create the obstacles for Anna to overcome. So while she may not wear villainy on her sleeve, she is, as far as narrative goes, the primary antagonist.

If this were any other Disney film, the character filling Elsa’s role would no doubt be a lot more sinister, and their defining musical number might include an expository ballad explaining their evil intentions. In its place, Frozen instead features a triumphant musical number. Let it Go is as celebratory as it is liberating, as it expresses Elsa freeing herself from the fear that has ruled her life. It’s thoughtful and empowering, and far more effective than simply having a villain sing of their evil deeds.

It’s true, some characters with sinister intentions do show up in the film, but their presence is secondary (and still serves thematic purposes) and more notably, they are never the driving force in the story. While most Disney movies feel completely reliant on their villains, Frozen is built entirely around its two heroines. Frozen isn’t about Anna and Elsa putting a stop to a villainous plot, it’s about the two sisters reconnecting.Anna

This perhaps reflects Frozen’s greatest strengths. It’s a film that feels structured like the very best Disney movies, but narratively, it takes risks, and changes things up in ways most Disney films wouldn’t think to attempt. The marketing of the film alone showed Disney’s uncertainty to how audiences would take to the movie’s core relationship being between two sisters, but all the greater still is that the film constantly delights and surprises. It’s a testament to the skills of the filmmakers involved that Frozen’s surprises feel genuine. It doesn’t feel like it’s trying to avoid stereotypes and cliches, rather, it feels like a film that’s studied its predecessors, took the assets that worked, and used them as a backdrop to tell its own story.

Just about every Disney trope is either rewritten, reinvented, or written-off entirely. But unlike the aforementioned sarcastic animated films of today, Frozen never feels like a parody of its lineage. It celebrates the things we love about Disney movies while admitting to their faults. In turn it tells a story that’s more than deserving of being in the Disney canon, but it tells a story that’s all its own.

Frozen is a pure joy from start to finish. Its opening outdoes Pixar in the emotional department. And its final scene – which doesn’t focus on a kiss between one of the heroines and their love interest (though there is that too), but instead is the simple image of two sisters ice skating – is possibly the sweetest image in any Disney film. And everything in between is delightful, entertaining and magical.

On the surface, Frozen represents Disney  doing what they do best, at their best. In its depth, Frozen is unlike anything Disney has ever done before.

Anna and Elsa

Runner-up: The Wind Rises

Big Hero 6 Review

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 is Disney’s first animated film “inspired” by a Marvel comic, though it’s probably more of a love letter to anime than it is to Disney’s superhero subsidiary. Set in the city of San Fransokyo, Big Hero 6 has the look and feel of the robot and superhero-fueled anime and manga from the 90s.

Big Hero 6 tells the story of Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), a boy genius who spends his time winning money in unsanctioned “bot fights,” after having graduated high school at an early age. Hiro’s brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) tries to persuade his brother to attend his university, where Hiro’s robotic knowledge would be more than welcome. There Hiro meets Tadashi’s friends Gogo (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), and Fred (T.J. Miller). But most importantly, it’s where Hiro meets Baymax (Scott Adsit), Tadashi’s healthcare robot.

This being a Disney movie, Hiro’s happy family doesn’t last long, and soon tragedy strikes and Hiro loses his brother Tadashi. Hiro then isolates himself from his friends and family, but once Baymax comes back into Hiro’s life, it leads the two on an adventure involving the mystery of Tadashi’s death, a super villain who stole Hiro’s invention ‘Microbots’  and is using them for a villainous plot, and eventually sees them, as well as Gogo, Wasabi, Honey Lemon and Fred, become super heroes.

 

If the setup sounds a bit like your typical Marvel movie origin story, that’s because a good chunk of it is. Big Hero 6 is a tried and true super hero flick in a lot of ways, which does prevent it from reaching the heights of some of Disney’s recent filmography, but it feels more honest and genuine than most of its live-action superhero counterparts, which makes it feel much fresher than the majority of super hero movies we’re bombarded with these days.

 

Big Hero 6It’s that heart that keeps Big Hero 6 afloat. Hiro is a likable main character, and the story allows him to show a wider range of emotions than we see from most Disney heroes. Baymax is surely one of the most endearing of Disney characters, he provides humor not because he’s a character created solely for comic relief, but because he’s a robot, and he acts like a robot. Yet, because he’s a robot dedicated to helping others, he helps boost the film’s emotional center. The relationship between Hiro and Baymax is what gives Big Hero 6 its heart. Through Baymax Hiro is able to get a better understanding of his brother even after his passing. It’s a super hero movie about overcoming the loss of a loved one.

 

Big Hero 6But while Hiro and Baymax may provide character development and depth, the other four members of the titular Big Hero 6 are unfortunately less fleshed out: Gogo fits squarely into the hardcore tomboy archetype, Wasabi is uptight and prone to comical freakouts, Honey Lemon is the girly girl, and Fred is the laid back comic foil. While Hiro and Baymax are given the time and attention to win our affections and earn our sympathy, the rest of the group are exactly who their one-note introductions say they are.

Another unfortunate aspect is that some of the film’s more story focused moments seem to go by too quickly, possibly as a means to fit as many action sequences into its running time as possible. The action scenes in question are all excellently done, mind you, but perhaps with a little more time dedicated to the story the other characters could have ended up as memorable as Hiro and Baymax.

In terms of animation, it doesn’t get much better than Big Hero 6 as far as CG is concerned. There is a painstaking attention to detail at work in Big Hero 6, which makes San Fransokyo feel like a living, breathing city (and keep an eye out for slews of Disney and Marvel Easter Eggs). Additional visual treats are provided by Baymax – whose “non-threatening, huggable” appearance make him one of the most unique of movie robots – and the Microbots, which join together by the thousands to create various shapes. In terms of the film’s scope and all the visual pop within it, Big Hero 6 may be the biggest spectacle Disney has ever made.

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 is a charming film, and a whole lot of fun. But I fear that comparison’s to Frozen (it’s immediate predecessor in the Disney canon) and The Incredibles (Disney’s “other” super hero flick) may effect it’s appeal. Those two films took their genres, and added deeper thematics and storytelling to them. By comparison, Big Hero 6 feels like a more tried and true super hero movie. A really good one, mind you. But it may end up in the shadows of the two aforementioned films for not going the extra distance. It even tries its hand at creating a twist on its villain scenario, but it’s a twist that feels immediately predictable. Compared to the surprises of Frozen and The Incredibles, Big Hero 6 falls short.

 

You can’t dismiss Big Hero 6 for not being as good as Disney’s best, though. There’s a whole lot to love about it: Marvel fans are given plenty of fan service (Stan Lee cameo and post-credits sequence included), it gives the Disney canon some diversity in style, and it’s a highly entertaining love letter to Japanese anime. It’s beautifully animated and features action scenes as good as any super movie movie. But best of all are Hiro and Baymax, who elevate Big Hero 6 to being one of the most endearing movies in Disney’s recent resurgence.

 

Big Hero 6

7

Why Today’s Disney Renaissance is Better than the 90s Disney Renaissance

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6, Disney’s most recent release, has kept the House of Mouse’s current hot streak alive. This hot streak, which began in 2009 with The Princess and the Frog, is often thought of as the “modern Disney Renaissance” in reference to the original Disney Renaissance that began after The Little Mermaid and continued throughout the 90s with such beloved films as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, ending with Tarzan.

A lot of Disney fans like to think of the 90s Renaissance to be something of Disney’s golden era, untouchable by any other generation of Disney films. But recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that the current wave of Disney films not only stands up to the 90s Disney Renaissance, but betters it. Granted, the modern Disney flicks in question currently stand at six, compared to the original Renaissance’s ten films. But it terms of diversity, creativity and storytelling, these six films give the 90s Disney canon a run for their money.

 

Little MermaidOne of the main reasons the 90s Disney films were so successful, and yet so restrained, can be summed up with both The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Both of which are charming movies (the former has aged in terms of its message, but the latter is still one of Disney’s finest), but Disney, looking to reclaim their former glory after their rather lackluster run in the 80s, was willing to play things safe. The Little Mermaid created the template for the generation of Disney films to follow, and Beauty and the Beast refined it. The rest, you could argue, simply replicated it. From character archetypes to story progression to the style of songs, the 90s Disney Renaissance, even with its best films, was largely unwilling to be different, or think outside of the box.

Hunchback of Notre DameArguably the sole exception to this was The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which I consider to be both one of Disney’s best and most underrated animated films). Hunchback of Notre Dame took the Disney template of the time, and wrapped it around a darker narrative and adult themes. The rest of the lot, even some of my favorites (Mulan, Hercules) wouldn’t have taken the creative risks that Hunchback did.

 

But that was one movie out of ten, whereas I think all six of the current Disney wave have far more distinct identities. Sure, Princess and the Frog and Tangled may fall under some of the same tropes as the 90s generation, but they at least cared to give their princesses personalities, and they as a whole have a stronger sense of characterization than the brunt of Disney’s films. Not to mention that both Tangled and The Princess and the Frog tried to add some twists to the formula, whereas the 90s films would have felt content sticking to the rulebook laid down by The Little Mermaid.

 

To top that off, the other modern Disney films include the charming Winnie the Pooh, a super hero movie in Big Hero 6, a video game love letter in Wreck-It Ralph, and Frozen, which may look like ‘another’ princess movie from the outside, but narratively and thematically, is in a league of its own in the Disney canon.

Anna and Elsa

Winnie the Pooh is as simple and cute as you would expect from the bear of very little brain, but it has a sense of innocents and peacefulness that most American animated features lack. Big Hero 6, while a by-the-books super hero film in some ways, is genuine and honest enough to give it more heart than its live-action super hero brethren. Wreck-It Ralph is a fun story with a memorable cast of characters, complimented by a constant sense of visual inventiveness. Finally, Frozen took what could have been another tried-and-true Disney musical, and turned it into something meaningful, with believable, even relatable characters, a story that took creative risks, and a level of depth that makes it one of the few Disney films I’ve seen analyzed and interpreted on an artistic level. When was the last time a Disney film had themes that could be interpreted in different ways?

 

I know what you’re probably asking by this point: “What about The Lion King? What about Aladdin?”

The Lion KingTruth be told, I find both The Lion King and Aladdin to be nothing special. That’s not to say I think they’re bad movies, but I certainly don’t think they’re worth the immense praise fans have given them. Nor do they really belong in arguments of great animated films. Aladdin is remembered for the iconic Genie, but take him out of the equation and everything else in the film is pretty forgettable. The Lion King, while good, is a pretty basic plot with an inconsistent tone (one minute Simba is crying over his father’s lifeless body, the next a warthog is singing about farting). And both still stuck true to the established formula. Again, they aren’t bad movies, but I don’t see them as a great argument in favor of the 90s Disney Renaissance.

 

I know, I am now the villain of every 90s kid. But I’m certainly not writing off the nostalgic favorites of the Disney Renaissance. I simply think that Disney’s recent output feels more free. Perhaps Disney doesn’t feel so desperate as to recycle the same formula now that they have the likes of Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars to fall back on, and so their own films are now allowed to be more creatively daring. But whatever the reason, I feel that these past six Disney animated features, while they may not be equal among each other (Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh are no Frozen or Wreck-It Ralph), do feel equally free to be themselves. The Princess and the Frog didn’t write a rulebook like The Little Mermaid did. But it did open the door for Disney movies to be more creative. I would say that’s all the more impressive.